Staying in Touch at a Distance

January 25, 2021

Bankers find new ways to connect in the pandemic era

By: Martin Daks
Source: NJBIZ

January 25, 2021 12:01 am

Banks often tout their “personal” attention to customers, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to take some detours. Many pushed mobile applications, but such a move can be an uphill battle: despite the convenience, more than 60% of US banking customers rarely or never use their bank’s mobile app, according to a McKinsey study. Here’s how some institutions are building new relationships and maintaining existing ones while observing social-distancing requirements.

Dorian Hansen chief marketing officer, head of operations & digital transformation at Investors Bank


“We have a customer base that enjoys coming to branches, so we’ve made some arrangements — like appointment-only visits — to let some people come in as needed, while stressing safety,” said Dorian Hansen chief marketing officer, head of operations & digital transformation at Investors Bank. “For some time now we’ve already had a very robust digital offering.”

The bank “has always done a lot of customer surveys, including getting input on their digital, branch and ATM experience, as well as our NICE [Now Improving Customer Experience] call centers,” she added. “So we were prepared when the pandemic struck.”

Investors is also trying to encourage holdouts to adopt a mobile banking approach. For example, “if someone uses the drive-through for a transaction, a branch team member will give them a note that basically says, ‘We’re happy to see you but you could have done this on the phone.’”

Investors also “mailed thousands of $5 checks to people to get them to download our mobile app,” Hansen noted. “We followed that up by asking customers if they want us to email or text them with notifications about extended branch hours, the availability of free credit monitoring, and other matters. So, we had a very robust digital offering before the pandemic, and since then we’ve had nice adoption of mobile banking, deposit, and Zelle among individuals and small businesses. We’re currently sending customers a $5 gift card if they start using Zelle to send and receive money.

Big numbers for digital banking

Online activity at Bank of America as of the third quarter 2020

  • 2.3 billion logins, up 9% year-over-year
  • 132.5 million bill payments made by 15.2 million customers
  • 43.4 million checks deposited via digital, representing 36% of deposits
  • 85% of total deposits were made via digital or ATM
  • 688,200 appointments booked, up 12% year-over-year
  • 140 million Zelle transactions sent and received, up 73% year-over-year
  • $39.1 billion Zelle transfers sent and received, up 88% year over year
  • 12.2 million Zelle total active users, up 36% year-over-year

Source: Bank of America

Investors is even using distanced banking to forge closer connections with small businesses and individuals. “We’re offering online on-demand training videos for certain banking products, and our treasury management solutions team also reaches out to customers by Zoom to spur awareness and education,” she added. “We’ve also used the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) initiative to reinforce relationships and further educate customers. We figured that we had their attention with the PPP, so it’s only natural for them to look to us for additional assistance and information.”

Alberto Garofalo


Institutions like Bank of America have gone all-in with digital as a way to supplement customer connections, according to New Jersey market president Alberto Garofalo. “The 12.2 million [national] Zelle active users at Bank of America sent and received 140 million transfers worth $39 billion in the third quarter of 2020 alone, up 73% and 88% year over year, respectively,” he said. “Digital represented 62% of total consumer mortgage applications and 79% of total direct auto [loan] applications. For us, digital is an evolving source of customer and business connections.”

He noted that BofA’s virtual financial assistant, ERICA, was the first such tool to be driven by artificial intelligence, and “we are committed to continuing to develop new and innovative solutions for more convenience. We utilize a combination of high-tech and hi-touch for our business and consumer customers.”


In practice, that means that businesses and individuals can begin complex banking relationships — like taking out a mortgage or a business loan — online for the convenience, and then follow up in person with a BofA subject matter expert if needed.

“Our [more than 200 New Jersey] financial centers maintain a safety framework that includes enhanced cleaning, wellness barriers, drive-up windows and other precautions,” Garofalo added. “We also monitor and coordinate with health experts to assure that we’re following the latest protocols. We’re doing more Webex and other virtual meetings, but we also engage with customers in person when it’s helpful, meeting them where they are while adhering to safety protocols.”

The COVID-19 pandemic may have spurred more businesses and individuals to embrace digital connections, but Bank of America’s brick-and-mortar branches “continue to be a core part of our strategy,” he noted. Still, the design of new financial centers, as BofA calls them, is changing.

Instead of “the huge marble facilities that banks previously deployed, our newly constructed and renovated ones are designed to encourage information flow. The financial centers tend to have a smaller footprint, but they leverage technology to make it easier to interact with the appropriate person.”

Typically, he noted, a financial center professional “will greet and direct you to the right place, from a teller or a specialist. We also have some smaller-footprint advanced centers with a digital concierge, and conference rooms for specific needs. It’s all part of our high-tech, high-touch commitment to customer service.”

“Our [more than 200 New Jersey] financial centers maintain a safety framework that includes enhanced cleaning, wellness barriers, drive-up windows and other precautions.” –  Alberto Garofalo